How safe is Gaborone Botswana
Gaborone: Botswana's rich metropolis
Crime scenarios wanted
It is a woman that I came to Gaborone for: Precious Ramotswe, Late thirties and traditionally built, as it is called here. You could also say - rather thick. Like all women in Botswana, she is respectfully addressed with "Mma", long "M", short "a". Mma Ramotswe owns a small van and an apartment in town. She doesn't like excessive rush, and neither does she like the "beanstalk-like creatures from advertising". In return, she thinks of mutual respect, friendliness, willingness to help - in short: of botho, the old Botswanian values. Mma Ramotswe is the head of the only detective agency in the country, the "No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency ". It is not a spectacular case that she is investigating. Evil disguises itself to her as an unfaithful husband, greedy housekeeper, or thief; as a person who lacks botho.
Of course, before I left I knew that I would not meet Mma Ramotswe - she and her detective agency are the brainchild of the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith, who lived in Botswana for a long time. His detective has already been investigating in nine volumes, with worldwide success. But even if the character is made up, the city in which he is supposed to live and work is not. And I felt like it. The Gaborone, where young women fight for the title of "Miss Viehwirtschaft" while the older ones chatter on the street as if they were "still out in the bush".
To the Gaborone, where "the wood smoke of the morning fire stimulates the appetite". And that is woken up "by cowbells on the radio". I arrived early in the morning and I actually see the first cow on the drive from the airport. But something irritates me: the huge glass facade of the "Diamond Trading Company Botswana", in which the animal is reflected with big eyes. A fence, however, prevents it from strolling across the neatly trimmed lawn. But Gaborone is not a cow village. It quickly becomes clear: It is a modern African metropolis. Big cars drive on the paved roads, none older than two udders, I guess - no more than eight years.
Teats and udders were counted here when the city, named after the tribal chief Kgosi Gaborone, was still a train station on the border with South Africa. It was not until 1966 that the village of 1,000 souls became the seat of government, mainly because the water supply seemed secure here. But then, just a year later, prospectors discovered diamonds in the north of the country, and Gaborone became one of the fastest growing capitals in the world. Around four decades later, ten times as many live where the planners once reckoned with 20,000 inhabitants.
They work in shiny office towers and shopping malls. Buildings such as "The Square" or "Kgale Mall" have emerged at a rapid pace. A not necessarily beautiful, but impressive world made of glass and granite, marble portals and hall-sized lobbies. Financial service providers have established themselves in it, conference managers, authorities, international organizations. If you like Bonn or Brasilia, you will love Gaborone.
But still one of the most precious raw materials lies between the buildings - untouched land. It is being used almost lavishly, with built-up plots bordering huge overgrown areas. Gaborone grows in width like a patchwork quilt, and nothing seems excessive or even overwhelming. Like an optical illusion, the sky compresses 20-story towers to a much more modest height.
Searching for clues in a modern city
But where is the city where the "cattle walked home" and the fires burned in front of their huts that "crackled and glowed for dinner"? Where are the little houses surrounded by mud walls? I find the traditional round huts with roofs made of reed - but they are private barbecue areas or original outdoor toilets. I also see modern single-family houses with clinker bricks and satellite antennas. And land that resembles small fortresses: located behind concrete walls with broken glass and electric fences. I wonder who to protect from? Even policemen patrol this city without a gun, and even on dark nights I will walk through deserted streets without fear. My heart rate doesn't even increase in Old Naledi, although this area is officially a slum.
Instead of misery, however, I find a clinic, a primary school and a well-tended park. The houses are made of plastered clay, and almost all of them have a water pipe. And for those who cannot afford the 500 Pula (around 50 euros) personal contribution for the sewer pipes, the state digs a hole for the outhouse, free of charge.
So far, Botswana has earned billions of dollars with its diamonds, and from it has achieved a welfare state that is unprecedented in Africa: with free school attendance, grants for rent and health insurance, and support programs for almost everyone who wants - whether schoolchildren or retirees. Gaborone in particular benefits from it, and the longer I am here, the more surprised I am. Even if Mma Ramotswe, the clever detective, has apparently led me on the wrong track. Because I still lack any trace of her and her world.
I'm wondering if the crime novels could be a ploy by the tourism authority? Because I'm probably not the only one who first heard about this city while reading. But Mma Setlang refuted my suspicions that same morning.
Tourists in Gaborone: a rarity
Mma Setlang, a burly lady, works for the Botswana Tourism Board and sits in an imposing office with lots of marble and granite. She has poured rooibos tea and is now doing the best she can: She raves about the crocodiles in the Okawango Delta and describes the wildness of the lions in the Kalahari with great images. She also speaks almost evocatively of the Chobe National Park and its large herds of elephants. "Everything is very, very worth seeing." Then it is finished. Her hand shakes a little as she raises her teacup. "But you want to stay in Gaborone anyway," she asks incredulously?
Well, I'm not the first tourist Mma Setlang has met in town so far. The success of the crime thrillers is now attracting more and more visitors like me, for whom Gaborone should not only serve as a stop on the way to the animal-rich north. But the local tourism industry has not yet adapted to the unexpected guests. To recognize this, all you have to do is look at the shelves of the office, where the brochures of the country's lodges, nature parks and safari providers are located. But no information on Gaborone. Mma Setlang cannot even serve with a city map. "Yes, what can you do here?", She says as if to herself. Then she can think of two sights: the "House of Chiefs" and the "Sanitas Nurseries and Garden Center". One is an official building, the other a horticultural store. "Oh," she adds, "and you could go to the opera!"
The city opera: a concrete trace
To my surprise, the opera on the outskirts is the first concrete trace of Mma Ramotswe. The "No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House "is supported by Alexander McCall Smith, the inventor of the" No. 1 Ladies ’Detective Agency". The building is not a magnificent building, it rather resembles the workshop of Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, the long-term fiancé of Mma Ramotswe, described in the book. In the past, trucks were repaired here and the mine workers drove to South Africa, only 15 kilometers away, on their loading areas. The opera doesn't offer music yet, only food. In the small restaurant, visitors can sit under the leadwood trees and order "Mma Makutsis Pancakes" or the "McCall Smith Breakfast". In a few months, the first piece is to celebrate its premiere in one of the smallest opera halls in the world: this is just 90 square meters. Garden benches stand in front of a tiny, empty stage. The orchestra - a piano, three violins, a viola, a cello - is free.
I drive back to the center, which is built in the shape of a large semicircle around the National Assembly and the President's office. The main mall is the main street. At the "Cresta President Hotel", Mma Ramotswe regularly takes her rooibos tea. Then she looks at what I also see: supermarkets, offices and textile shops. Greengrocers, booksellers and photographers with Polaroid cameras have set up their stands between them. Carvings from Malawi are on display and reed baskets from the Thamalakane River in the north. The pelts of antelopes, squirrels and jackals are piled high. It seems a bit as if Cottbus is holding its "African Days". I sip my tea relaxed when I hear the babble of voices. It comes from a plane tree across from the mall. Around 50 men are discussing excitedly, sometimes only one speaks, sometimes all of them speak at the same time. I already know from Mma Ramotswe: "There is a lot of talk in this country and, as far as I know, it is mainly the men."
Trees are one of the most important places in the country. They are probably the guarantee for 40 years of political stability - before an official decision is made, all advantages and disadvantages have been weighed in their shadow, whether it is the opening times of the bars or the candidates for the presidency. Botswana is a real speech democracy. More and more men are now coming out of the offices and shops and taking part in the debate. Some take off their jackets and hang them on a branch. "It goes on like this every day," says Charles Harvey, "for hours."
Mma Ramotswe on the outskirts
I meet Charles Harvey in the "Good Food Restaurant" across from the plane tree. The Englishman is professor of economics and advisor to the Botswana government. He flies from Brighton to Gaborone half a dozen times a year. Since he was reading one of the Mma Ramotswe thrillers, I had initially mistaken him for a tourist on the detective's footsteps. "Somehow that's true," says the 72-year-old. "I've been looking for this Gaborone since I've known Mma Ramotswe." "So did you find it?" The professor laughs. "Of course," he says, "come on, I'll show you."
We're going to the western outskirts. In the books, here, at the foot of Kgale Hill, is the detective agency. And then I actually see her. The house isn't painted yellow, but a sign clearly says: "No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency ". Also, the neighborhood shops are exactly as I imagined them to be. There is the bicycle repair shop, the hairdresser, the laundry and the small trader who also lends cash. Even the acacia that Mma Ramotswe looks at from her door. "Here you go," says Professor Harvey, "here is your Gaborone, as it is in the book."
It's a movie set. The houses are made of plywood, all rooms are empty. Last year, Anthony Minghella, who also directed "The English Patient", shot a TV version based on the books. However, none of the main characters came from Botswana, and even the detective's little white van came from overseas. After all, the government was able to prevent the film from being made in Johannesburg with a grant of five million dollars. After the end of shooting, the site was supposed to be opened to visitors. But a fence still secures the scenery for possible sequels.
Readings at venues
Curious people come anyway. About ten people are standing at the entrance around a young man who is passionately talking about Mma Ramotswe. His name is Tim Race and he organizes city tours to locations of the crime novels: "The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Tour ". The highlight are short readings. On the film set, Race reads the descriptions of the detective agency and the passages that tell of the view of Kgale Hill. Sometimes he speaks loudly and with excited gestures, only to crouch and whisper in a foreboding moment. His audience nods knowingly and laughs. Finally, the spectators get into their cars - on to the next scene! For example, about the detective's supposed home on "Zebra Drive", which is actually called "Zebra Way".
Not all stations are improvised or made up. The "Equatorial" in the "Riverwalk Mall" really does exist. The café in a shopping center open to the sides is one of the detective's favorite spots. From here she looks out over the eucalyptus forest, Tlokweng Road and lush land. It is already dark when Tim Race reads the passage in "Equatorial" in which a convert is being eaten by a crocodile during his baptism in the river - the lights go out in the whole mall. The music falls silent, the voices are muffled. For minutes I can hear the noises of the wilderness all around, the "bushland at night" described in the books: cicadas chirp, birds chirp, and there are "all these strange noises", indistinguishable, almost eerie.
The waiters set up candles. But nobody seems surprised - power outages are part of the process when a city devotes all of its energy to growth. It is said to be switched off at set times every day in a different shopping center. The Gaboronians make the best of it, they see it as a "romantic hour". They sit at their tables like silhouettes, and from a distance I think I can hear the roar of cattle and the tinkling of cowbells. Smoke drifts over from somewhere like a hearth fire. I get in the mood for pumpkin, cooked, which Mma Ramotswe likes so much. Then the lights go back on and the guests next to me turn their laptops on again. I ask the waitress about pumpkin, but "we've never offered anything like that," says the waitress.
Another scent fills my nose, this time it comes from the next table. It's the sweet smell of rooibos tea. The man who drinks it has his Borsalino next to him and is wearing a gray suit. His hair is also gray and a bit shaggy - Alexander McCall Smith looks just like the author photo in his books. When my surprise has subsided, I sit down at the writer's table and listen to him raving about the people of Botswana, life in this rich, safe, polite country - in this "Africa for beginners", as he says. I report on my difficult search for the city he describes.
"But this Gaborone doesn't even exist, am I right?" "What if it were? Would you regret your visit?" Asks McCall. I think. "No," I answer then. "It's been a pleasure solving the case."
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